Removal of state flag sparks conversation among Oxford residents

Posted on Aug 23 2015 - 9:26pm by Drew Jansen

The decision to temporarily remove the Mississippi state flag from the city’s public buildings Tuesday has elicited varying reactions from Oxford residents.

Mayor Pat Patterson and the Board of Aldermen voted unanimously to remove the Mississippi state flag from public buildings for a two-week period in anticipation of a more permanent decision at the group’s next regular meeting on Tuesday, Sept. 1.

Following the meeting Tuesday, Oxford resident Devin Miller protested the decision by waving a Confederate banner in front of the Confederate soldier statue on the Square. While Miller did not brandish a state flag, he explained his gesture concerned the state flag and its removal from city buildings.

“It is a daily battle to fly the flag now because so many want to bring it down,” Miller said.

Protests from both sides of the issue have continued outside the Lafayette County Courthouse throughout the week.

Despite the city’s decision, the state flag still flies outside the courthouse. This flag, along with any others on county property, lies outside city government jurisdiction. There has been no discussion of the issue among the county’s Board of Supervisors, according to County Administrator Joseph Johnson.

Following a series of testimonies from Oxford residents at the meeting Tuesday, Patterson initially proposed a motion to fly both the current state flag and its predecessor, which features a Magnolia tree and has become an alternative symbol for some Mississippians.

Mississippi’s first official state flag, the “Magnolia Flag,” was adopted in 1861 and remained the state banner until after the Civil War, when the Mississippi Legislature adopted the current flag.

Alderman Janice Antonow then suggested an alternate motion that the city remove the state flag and fly no flags for the time being. The board unanimously approved this motion.

Though city hall flies neither banner, neighboring Neilson’s Department Store currently displays the “Magnolia Flag” atop its storefront where the state flag once flew. Store president Will Lewis said behind this choice was a desire among the owning family to not offend Oxford residents and visitors.

“We’re not trying to get in anyone’s face, but that’s how we feel,” Lewis said.

Neilson’s flew the same “Magnolia Flag” during the 2001 state referendum in which 65 percent of voters chose the current state flag over an alternate submitted by former Governor William Winter and a redesign committee. According to Lewis, customer compliments on the flag have outnumbered complaints.

“I have some friends that feel strongly about keeping the flag,” Lewis said. “It would be easier to stay out of it and not run the risk of turning away any business, but I think our normal customer will understand.”

Oxford-Lafayette County Chamber of Commerce president and CEO Jon Maynard advocated for the removal of the state flag. Maynard said the controversy behind its confederate symbolism deters business owners and entrepreneurs from participating in the state’s economy.

“When we go out to market the state of Mississippi, our flag, our history, does show,” Maynard said. “Will taking the flag down or changing the flag create a flood of jobs and companies into Mississippi? No. That’s not the way it’s going to be. But [the flag] doesn’t help.”

Oxford resident Michael McMurray cautioned in his testimony against the use of what some call the “Magnolia Flag,” arguing that its history is largely misunderstood.

McMurray argued that the Confederate symbol within the “Magnolia Flag” made it an unsuitable replacement for the state’s current flag. While the current state flag contains the Confederate battle flag, the “Magnolia Flag” contains the first Confederate banner, a single white star on a blue background.

“It’s really about competing mythologies,” McMurray said. “The Magnolia Flag is actually the flag of secession.”

In her remarks on the flag, Alderman Robyn Tannehill proposed a resolution that would explicitly call for replacement of the current state flag by the Mississippi Legislature.

Oxford resident Joseph Marshall said after the meeting Tuesday that the city’s refusal of a state symbol sets a dangerous precedent.

“This is no small matter,” Marshall said. “As a municipality, the city of Oxford is not just showing disrespect, but it’s showing contempt for the political and legal process that establishes and changes public policy in this state.”